Puzzle games are in a renaissance thanks to the mobile market right now, but while things like Candy Crush and its various knockoffs remain insanely popular, there have been some amazing entries into the side-scroller puzzle genre. Not just inventive, head-scratching play but in some cases unforgettable story lines and daring, avant garde characters. If you've never gotten into one of these types of games before, here is a guide for you to get started.
Thomas Was Alone There probably has never been a game that broke more molds than Thomas Was Alone. Its characters are represented by nothing more than differently sized and colored rectangles, and yet the narration by Danny Wallace infuses them with more nuance and depth than any Grand Theft Auto protagonist. The graphics are as simple as Pong, but still sharp enough and beautiful enough to keep holding their own into the eighth-generation systems. Are you a girl looking for the perfect equal representation of women in gaming? It has literally never been done better than with the blue box Claire and the purple box Sarah (Laura is pink and a love interest to Chris, but still definitely her own woman).
As a puzzler, Thomas Was Alone is not overly difficult. You'll probably be able to get through it without ever looking up a walk-through even if it takes more than a few tries to get to the exits. The themes of cooperation and personal relationships play out heavily in the actual gameplay, making them powerful storytelling tools. My favorite is one where Thomas and James must slowly and carefully edge themselves across a vast abyss with spikes waiting to catch them if they miss. Not only is it a neat thing to physically do, it actively feels as if it cements the two rectangles as a team. Add in the fact that the plot is basically The Matrix Trilogy if Stephen Fry had written it (and it didn't suck), and it's one of the most engaging games ever.
Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty Abe's Oddysee on the original PlayStation is a classic and terrific game. That's why there was so much excitement when Just Add Water announced they were bringing it back not in an HD remix, but a fully new reboot built from the ground up. Coming out last year, it was the best of both worlds and maintained the humor and difficulty of the original with the capabilities of a modern title.
In case you missed the Oddworld franchise the first time around, it centers on a Mudokon named Abe who attempts to free his fellow slaves from a meat-processing plant where they are slated to become ingredients in a new line of products. It's a dark tale of capitalism run wild offset with fart jokes and black comedy. Abe uses the ability to possess other beings to solve puzzles and rescue his friends. It can be hard as hell, but the unique settings and play make up for it.
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This Is the Only Level What this series lacks in storytelling it makes up for in the fact that it's free. This Is the Only Level follows an elephant as he has to make his way through the simple, introductory level of a puzzler. Trouble is he forgot to make any more levels, so they're just going to have to reuse this one over and over again.
Sounds simple, but very quickly the game requires some extremely out-of-the-box thinking. Every time you exit the level and reappear at the beginning, the solution is completely different. Clues are given by the title of each new beginning, but some of the things that you need to do to win seem so insanely counterintuitive (such as refreshing the page) that it honestly adds a lot of tension to the play. The original game was followed up with two more free and excellent sequels, and a totally rubbish fourth game that should be avoided at all costs.
The Swapper This one just recently made it to the consoles and is probably the best game I've played this year. The Swapper involves a space explorer who discovers a gun capable of creating clones and switching out consciousnesses between them. Teleported to a derelict deep-space research vessel, our hero has to bring the whole thing crashing down on an alien planet to return the psychic murderous rocks that were harvested from it.
Most of the great story-driven puzzlers give good reasons for the puzzles existing in the first place. Portal, for instance. The Swapper fails in that category, but you hardly notice with the combination of lush space surroundings, incredibly compelling story and a mind-blowing ending that will probably have you playing the game immediately a second time just to understand the whole thing. It's about a middle-difficulty game, and you'll kick yourself more than once after you realize some of the simplicity of the solutions. The real win is in the haunting atmosphere.
Oh, and minor spoiler: I believe The Swapper is the first game since the original Metroid where you don't know that your protagonist is female until the end.
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Limbo Quite simply one of the most beautiful and poignant games ever made, Limbo is the journey of a young boy through a bleak, gray afterlife in search of the soul of his dead sister. It's a minimalist work full of brutal, savage traps. Everything from giant spiders to mysterious souls that hunt you with spears stands in your way.
Limbo does wonders with very little. It paints in darknesses instead of colors and uses shadows to great ominous haunted caves and rusted, abandoned sawmills. The puzzles are a good test of both intelligence and quick reflexes that will have you dying a lot, but it's the path through the misty levels that is truly soul-scathing. It really makes your final victory something to cherish. It's not a happy game. Even The Swapper looks downright cheery by comparison, but it's remained a modern indie classic for years because it challenges both players' abilities and the strength of their hearts to endure.